On Secret

My friend Lydia posted a question on Facebook about the impending shutdown of the hot-then-not app Secret a few days ago:

“..I may write something soon about Secret, and its closure. This will partly be a followup on my Atlantic article about anonymity from last year, and partly a discussion of the problems and product decisions that led to Secret’s closure. SO: If you have thoughts, ideas, or observations about Secret, then I’d love to hear them!!”

She tagged me for thoughts, and as a non-user of Secret, I thought I might not have much to say. But I liked her piece on anonymous Internet use last fall (here), so I thought about it  — and then I wrote her a novel of a comment. I thought maybe it was worth repeating (part of it) here, lightly edited. The comment thread is public if, for some reason, you want to see the rest of it / the original. 

I think that the big appeal of anonymity is when you have anonymity with a CONTEXT. Secret lacked context beyond simply being ‘secret.’ What was expected of you, and what value did anonymity provide to that context? The beauty of PostSecret, its predecessor in my mind, was that the secrets were truly anonymous and you could specifically not engage with any of the social responses to it; sharing a secret via postcard was releasing something, a chance to let it go, to get it off your chest and just maybe move on from it. It wasn’t social, it was personal.

Secret wasn’t that. It was specifically social. But being anonymous in a social context needs, well, context for that anonymity to be productive. We have to know how we’re supposed to wield that power.

In Lydia’s original article about online anonymity, one of the things that I liked was her discussion of how, in early anonymous web communities, you got a chance to try on a different identity or version of yourself in a given context. You weren’t anonymous, exactly: you were a specific version of yourself (or someone else) in a way that was useful or productive in that context.

I don’t think that the “problem” for social web use is about anonymity or verified identity — I think that there are opportunities for both to be productive. I think the problem is when there’s a lack of context for how that social interaction unfolds online.

If we’re building a social space online, what are we solving for — and how can identity or anonymity be used in support of that? e.g., If we want people to engage in an open-minded discussion about a controversial political issue, maybe having the discussion unlinked to identity is useful, because it lets people express opinions or ideas that might alienate their friends or challenge their identity as a conservative, liberal, libertarian, socialist, whatever.

Secret lacked a motivating reason to reveal parts of yourself that you kept hidden — it was neither abstracted from you and confessional in a liberating way, nor was it contextualized to make the social aspects useful.

Also, durability matters. The ability to share and spread a secret outside the app, to me, was another bug not a feature. In many places where anonymity was most productive for me as a youth, the contexts were ephemeral; they lent themselves to experimentation. A chat passed quickly, an in-game interaction passed away. A Secret post could have a whole other social life online, divorced from the context of the app.

Yik Yak, as one commenter pointed out at the very beginning, seems more promising. It’s more geographically focused, its social nature is specific to the context, it enables more limited responses from other users, the ‘secrets’ shared aren’t able to be separated from the context of the app (no one is sharing Yik Yaks on Facebook….).

Bottom line: I think anyone making a communication tool for digital spaces needs to provide context, and I could see no context for Secret. I’m not at all surprised or sorry about it’s closure.

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